Dominion by Peter Ackroyd
Peter Ackroyd’s engaging Dominion opens with a lucid description of life in 1815 England and concludes with the death of Queen Victoria in 1900, who, on her deathbed, complained she could not die yet as she had “several things … to arrange”.
In between, he provides a masterly, readable account of the decline of the Regency and the rise of the Victorian period and the British Empire. Victoria’s crowning as Queen in 1837, at the age of 18, sparked the beginning of a period of enormous innovation and the flowering of great writers. Technological advances included steam railways, the telegram, the Kodak camera and the first motor car in 1885; with many of the inventions showcased at the Great Exhibition in 1851, which stunned the populace with its almost magical collection of treasures and innovations.
Ackroyd spends much of the book capturing the spirit of the age, rather than dwelling on the minutiae. He describes the growing importance of the middle classes and bemoans the terrible conditions of long working hours, dire poverty and poor housing that afflicted much of the working class. Sanitary conditions were so bad that in 1858 London suffered from the ‘Great Stink’ as “the turbulent flow of faeces and other animal matter created a miasma over the Thames and the city”. He also sketches the controversies of the time and the effects of the Boer and other wars.
The fifth and penultimate volume in Ackroyd’s History of England, it’s a fascinating overview of the time. All six volumes, when completed, will provide an impressive history of England.